The Handmaiden (2016)
“The Handmaiden” is an award-winning erotic psychological drama directed by Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy” (2003), “Stoker” (2013)). Based on/inspired by the novel “Fingersmith” (2002) by Sarah Waters, the film centres on a young maid, Sook-Hee, who arrives to the estate of an affluent book-lover, Kouzuki, to be a servant to his niece Lady Hideko. However, nothing is as it seems, because Sook-Hee’s main employer is actually a conman, self-named Count Fujiwara, who made a deal with the young maid to con Lady Hideko out of her inheritance. Fiercely intelligent and provoking, “The Handmaiden” does three things brilliantly: it toys cleverly with its audience’s imagination, and challenges its formed beliefs and visual interpretations; touches a sensitive nerve with its poetic and erotic imagery; and provides a stunning cinematic experience.
Perhaps paying an indirect tribute to Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” (1950), “The Handmaiden” evokes that kind of intelligence found in such films as Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (1995) or in Nolan’s “The Prestige” (2006), but with an erotically-charged atmosphere and more dream-like, beautiful visual presentation. That is where the main merit of “The Handmaiden” lies, begging a second-viewing. The setting of the film is the 1930s Korea under the Japanese colonial rule, and the film is divided into the three main parts. In the first part, “Count Fujiwara” makes a deal with Sook-Hee for her to pave the way for Lady Hideko to fall in love and marry “the Count”, so then he can declare Lady Hideko insane and get her fortune. Sook-Hee, then, tries to establish the relationship of trust with her Lady, but, perhaps, forms a too strong bond of friendship. In this first part, everything agreed between Sook-Hee and the Count seems to go according to the plan, until just the beginning of the second part where things turn on its head. The second part maybe the most intriguing of the three where nearly everything which was going on in the first past is being put into question. In the third part, what the audience encounters is the deeply satisfying, logically-well-thought-out finale, which may only be comparable to that in such films as Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) or in above mentioned “The Prestige”.
Through the intricate presentation of the dark-wooded haunted colonial home of Uncle Kouzuki or his eerie Japanese-style garden, ”The Handmaiden” achieves setting the atmosphere of unease and suspense mixed with strange lightness and morbid curiosity. The film has a ghost scare, a mental asylum setting, and its story is based on a conspiracy to defraud, but, all these elements, and many more, eventually come together to form a perfectly logical structure. Park Chan-wook’s usual theme of vengeance runs throughout the picture, and both art and literature play a large part in the movie, contributing to the film being both exquisite and intoxicating. In the film, Uncle Kouzuki is not only an avid collector of books, but also a devious art lover, and we even glimpse in the film the famous erotic paining “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Japanese painter Hokusai, though here the picture is presented differently. In the film, there are graphic sexual scenes and allusions, which are unconventional, but placed as they are in the film, they are complementary elements to the story which is essentially also a tale of a boundless obsession and a hidden passion. Yes, sometimes the film borders on grotesque, but at the same time, it never stops short of being fascinating; at times it is too sexually explicit, but it always remains strangely acceptable and poetically erotic. “The Handmaiden” is also a long film, running way over two hours, but the captivating intricacies of its plot, attention to detail and the admirable characterisations totally justify the film’s length.
Although it is true that the film has a lot of style, unlike such recent films as Refn’s “The Neon Demon” (2016), “The Handmaiden” also has a lot of substance and depth (probably, thanks to the great novel it is based on). The film’s “depth” is sensed not only through its plot, but is also felt through the excellent presentation of the main characters, and the merit for this is due to the cast, namely to Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong and to Kim Tae-ri.
The beauty of the female characters (actresses) plays nicely against the strange peculiarities and arrogant personalities of the male characters in the film. Sook-Hee, Lady Hideko, Uncle Kouzuki and “Count” Fujiwara are vividly portrayed, and their inter-relationships are as fascinating as they are complex. The audience never quite knows what one really thinks of another, whether one considers another a friend or a foe, what their relationship with one another really is like, and whether there is an implicit blackmail or a romantic love affair going on. All four main characters are imperfect, mysterious and have their own unknown agendas. Sook-Hee is one’s natural pickpocket with seemingly no conscience, bragging at one point that, by the age five, she was able to tell a real coin from a fake. However, the audience is still sympathetic towards her; she does not fit the portrait of one’s typical anti-hero; and she undergoes a moral transformation as the film progresses. Lady Hideko at first appears naïve and irrational, but, not everything as it seems, and, perhaps, her difficult childhood under Uncle Kouzuki’s supervision makes her more repressed and unwilling to reveal her true self. Park Chan-wook described the character Lady Hideko as “a white cat, elegance and distanced” [sic]. “Count” Fujiwara is a typical conman, only thinking about his own forthcoming wealth; but is he as clever as he seems? Finally, Uncle Kouzuki is a “twisted”, sexually-perverted erotic books’ lover fond of corporal punishment and who makes his niece read graphic erotic literature for his pleasure. Although Kouzuki’s character seems unchangeable, his past, his true relationship with his niece, and the extent of his mental deviation all raise more questions as the film moves further. The only weakness in the film may be that the male characters are accorded far less attention than the female ones, and if there has been more character depth accorded to the male characters, “The Handmaiden” would have felt more balanced.
After all this, it is safe to say that Park Chan-wook made a great recovery after his previous film “Stoker” (2013). “Stoker” may have boasted a famous Hollywood cast, but the film lacked so many essential elements, and it is those things we definitely now see in “The Handmaiden”, such as a strong, dramatic script and an emotional connection. “The Handmaiden”’s visual style is also Park Chan-wook through and through. The director celebrates the beauty of Japan and its culture by deploying high-quality visuals. The film’s visual style becomes instantly recognisable with a luscious, sumptuous effect. The soundtrack is also surprisingly impressive and Park Chan-wook collaborates here with his usual film composer Jo Yeong-wook (see below a music score from the film).
As for the film’s awards and nominations, South Korea did not submit “The Handmaiden” for the Academy Award consideration, choosing “The Age of Shadows” instead. This decision beggars belief, because “The Handmaiden” appears a stronger movie both technically and visually than “The Age of Shadows”. In 2016, “The Handmaiden” competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for numerous other awards across the globe.
“The Handmaiden” must be Park Chan-wook’s best work to date. The film boasts well-defined, interesting characters that play out in a very cleverly-constructed and erotically-charged plot which, in turn, has unbelievable twists and a satisfying ending. If you couple all this with the stunningly beautiful and distinctive cinematography, then “The Handmaiden” becomes a “must-see” film, and, certainly, one of the best of 2016. An easy 10/10